Mapping the Pathways of Least Resistance

Cancer is a notoriously slippery target. It can assume multiple genetic identities, taking a different pathway whenever it needs to dodge the latest treatment. A recent study found that just a single, tiny tumor can contain more than a million distinct mutations, priming it for resistance.

A series of brain-scans on one patient whose brain tumor bounced back repeatedly despite surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. (Fujimaki T et al. “Effectiveness of interferon-beta and temozolomide combination therapy against temozolomide-refractory recurrent anaplastic astrocytoma.” doi:10.1186/1477-7819-5-89)

A series of brain-scans on one patient whose tumor (white) bounced back repeatedly despite surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. (Fujimaki T et al. “Effectiveness of interferon-beta and temozolomide combination therapy against temozolomide-refractory recurrent anaplastic astrocytoma.” doi:10.1186/1477-7819-5-89)

So, while one treatment might be able to wipe out most of the cancer cells, the few that remain with the right genetic makeup will go on to forge a resistance.

Such resistance is a huge problem and one of the reasons that cancer is on its way to becoming the number one killer disease in the United States. By the end of this year, cancer will kill nearly 600,000 Americans and millions more around the world.

Kris Wood, Ph.D., spoke about the challenges of combating cancer drug resistance at the Basic Science Day on Nov. 16. The annual event brought together faculty, staff, trainees, and students to celebrate basic science research and to encourage collaborations. During the day, attendees heard TED-length talks from faculty members studying a wide range of topics, from vocal learning to asexual reproduction.

“My lab is most interested in the basic question of what are the things that cancer cells can do that allow them to survive in what should be toxic environments created by drug treatments,” said Wood, an assistant professor of pharmacology and cancer biology. “By understanding how cancer cells survive in drug environments, we might be able to both predict those patients who will respond well and respond poorly to treatments, and also design combination therapies that could work more effectively.”

Kris Wood is an assistant professor of pharmacology and cancer biology.

Kris Wood is an assistant professor of pharmacology and cancer biology.

Wood said that knowing that so many different genetic alterations can lead to resistance might make researchers wonder what chances they have of ever stopping a tumor.

But he thinks there is reason to be optimistic, because these myriad mutations seem to function by altering a discrete set of pathways. In turn, many of these pathways seem to create the same kinds of effects in cells – chiefly, fueling growth and shirking death. Targeting the effects that enable resistance could bring about better ways to treat cancers.

For example, half of melanomas are driven by mutations in a gene called BRAF. Wood began to map out the different drug resistance pathways that are controlled by the BRAF signaling molecule. He found that many of these pathways converge on another signaling molecule called MYC, which is known to promote cell proliferation.

When Wood blocked MYC in drug-resistant melanoma cells, he found that it could make them sensitive to further rounds of chemotherapy. He also found that suppressing MYC in melanoma cells before treatment could dramatically delay the time that it takes for resistance to emerge.

Mutant tumor cells (brown) in a brain metastisis of malignant melanoma. BRAF is stained. (Image by Jensflorian via Wikimedia Commons.)

Mutant tumor cells (brown) in a brain metastisis of malignant melanoma. BRAF is stained. (Image by Jensflorian via Wikimedia Commons.)

“MYC is a complicated beast, and there are lots of things it can do,” said Wood. “I think there are some promising strategies for inhibiting MYC, which could lead to intelligent therapies that target resistance.”

Broadfoot_100Guest post by Marla Vacek Broadfoot Ph.D.

Celebratory Bottles Mark the March of Time

The 50th anniversary of the Triangle University Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL) November 6-8 was a homecoming of sorts for hundreds of alumni, faculty and friends.

On the eve of the anniversary party, Chris Gould of NC State inspecting the trophy case at TUNL.

On the eve of the anniversary party, Chris Gould of NC State inspected the trophy case at TUNL.

For half a century, the three Triangle universities have collaborated seamlessly on nuclear physics experiments using particle accelerators and other equipment too large and expensive for one university to effectively use on its own.

Key milestones in the lab’s history are marked by a dusty rank of empty champagne bottles marching across the top of a power supply cabinet in the basement lab.

Each trophy bottle records a moment of celebration, when faculty, researchers, technicians, and students gathered to savor an achievement made possible by years of working all hours of the day and night to design, build, measure, adjust, repair, monitor, and make sense of equipment and experiments. Each is labeled, typically in Wite-Out correction fluid, with a date and the event.

“The bottles represent technical milestones that either created new research opportunities at TUNL or increased the competitiveness of TUNL’s research activities in specific areas,” said Calvin Howell, who is a Duke professor and the director of TUNL.

December 29, 1968, the first beam of 30 MeV after two years of construction and assembly.

December 29, 1968, Roberson’s handwriting celebrates the first beam of 30 MeV, marking the end of two years of construction and assembly and the beginning of 50 years of science.

Russell Roberson, Duke professor emeritus and one-time TUNL director, started the tradition. On Sunday, December 29, 1968, TUNL physicists successfully coaxed a beam of particles out of the new equipment, marking the completion of  two years of constructing a new building behind Duke’s physics building and installing enormous equipment purchased with a $2.5 million grant from the Atomic Energy Commission.

“It was a pretty big deal to have that beam and it seemed like we ought to remember when we did it,” Roberson said.

Graduate student Chris Gould had just driven from Philadelphia to Duke between Christmas and New Year’s day to deliver a piece of equipment with colleague Steve Shafroth, who was beginning his TUNL career at UNC. “We arrived in the evening,” remembered Gould, who is now a professor of physics at NC State. “And came upon a bibulous celebration in the control room where bottles of Cold Duck were being cooled down with liquid nitrogen and drunk out of paper cups.”

Six months later, Gould began his career at TUNL.

In the coming years, they would collide this type of beam (and others) with targets of various compositions in their quest to unlock the secrets of subatomic structure and forces.

Here are a few trophies from over the years:

Worth Seagondollar

July 14, 1983 – “Polarized Target – Polarized Beam.” Worth Seagondollar, chair of physics at N.C. State. (Courtesy of David Haase, NCSU)

May 13, 1979 – “First pulsed polarized n”

In the mid-1970s, TUNL began producing polarized neutron beams, in which the neutrons were all spinning in the same direction. Knowing the spin direction of the particles in the beam made for more precise interpretation of the data when the beam hit the target. This bottle from 1979 marked a further enhancement—the beam was pulsed so that the speed of the neutrons in the beam could be calculated.

July 8, 1980 – “First data taken with the VAX”

TUNL was the first nuclear lab to take data with the new 32-bit VAX computer from the Digital Equipment Corporation. TUNL physicists built an operating system to go along with it, which was used by many other labs around the world. In fact, Gould and Roberson traveled to China and Saudi Arabia to help labs there set up the same system. (Before the VAX, TUNL “borrowed” computer power from the high-energy physics group at Duke, via cables that ran through a 4” pipe between the two labs.)

May 15, 1992 – “Lamb Shift Polarimeter Bump Bump Bump”

TUNL faculty and students designed a device called a “Lamb shift spin-filter polarimeter” that would characterize the distribution of spin directions of the particles in a polarized beam almost instantly — a task that had previously taken hours. “We had just collected the first spectrum which proved that the Lamb-shift polarimeter could be used to determine the beam polarization in the predicted way,” recalled UNC professor Tom Clegg. “It was a night for high-fives and celebration. We joyously popped the cork on this bottle late on Friday evening after a very difficult week.”

"Bump Bump Bump" signified three distinct signals from the new Lamb shift spin-filter polarimeter.

1992 “Bump Bump Bump”

October 26, 2006 – “First Beam Extracted from Booster”

TUNL operates the world’s most powerful Compton gamma-ray source, called HIGS (which stands for high intensity gamma-ray source). The gamma rays are produced in a free electron laser ring, which is housed in a 52,000-square-foot building adjacent to the original TUNL facility on Duke’s campus. In 2006, TUNL scientists added a booster ring called a synchrotron to increase the intensity of gamma rays that could be produced. Scientists from all over the world use the facility for experiments involving gamma rays at energies of 10 million to 100 million electron volts (MeV).

Mary-Russell RobersonGuest post by Mary-Russell Roberson

The dangerous persistence of smoking into the 21st century

The "smoking ring" cigarette billboard advertisement in New York City. Picture Credit:

The “smoking ring” cigarette billboard advertisement in New York City. Picture Credit:

When Harvard historian of science Allan Brandt was a child, he couldn’t help but notice one thing in particular when in the car with his family — the cigarette advertising billboards. At the time, there was a very unique billboard that advertised Camel cigarettes, which actually smoked “rings” from the board. His young mind was captivated by how cool the board looked — and presumably, unaware of the dangers of the product the board was advertising.

As time passed, it became increasingly clear to Brandt and to the American public that smoking cigarettes was bad for you. Brandt’s most recent book – The Cigarette Century, was awarded the Bancroft Prize in 2008. In Brandt’s words, cigarettes are the “most dangerous product ever produced in such large quantities.” And indeed, the numbers are shocking — over 480,000 Americans die annually of tobacco-related diseases.

Given such obvious problems associated with cigarettes, Brandt started wondering, “How could something so bad for you be so advertised in such bold ways?”

2015BoyarskyflierREVThe answer, Brandt explained to a Duke audience gathered on Nov. 11 for the 2015 Boyarsky Lecture in Law, Medicine and Ethics, was manipulation — the American public was being grossly manipulated by the bold advertising of cigarettes. Brandt talked about Mr. Edward Bernays, who, according to Brandt, is one of the main founders of the concept of modern public relations, made extensive efforts to put smoking into the mainstream media. One of Bernays’ biggest achievements was the widespread introduction of smoking to Hollywood. The efforts to introduce smoking to mainstream media worked amazingly well. By the mid-1950s, nearly half of all Americans were smoking. To put this into perspective, at the turn of the 20th century, nearly no Americans were smoking!

However, as more and more research proved that cigarettes were actually harmful to Americans’ health, another curious phenomenon happened, where cigarette companies were actually funding their own research.

Brandt pointed out how this was a thinly disguised attempt to publish misleading conclusions about cigarettes to the public by establishing it as “science.” Such biased research funding occurs today in other industries as well, such as for oil companies, for research concerning climate change.


Children smoking in various developing countries is not uncommon, and poses a huge health risk to them. Picture Credit: CBSNews

However, public health campaigns still showed measurable positive impact — today it is evident that there is a declining trend in the number of smokers in America. However, wouldn’t that mean that the cigarette industry would die down? According to Brandt, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. The cigarette industries have now moved to exporting cigarettes to the developing world, where populations are less educated, and there are fewer regulations concerning such sales.

According to Brandt, in 2000, four million people died — two million died in the developed world, and two million in the developing world. By the year 2030, over 10 million people total will be killed by cigarette use — three million in developed nations, and seven million in developing nations. The rapid proliferation in such developing countries due to lack of education and awareness is heavily evident, especially with the much higher rate of childhood smoking. It is heavily evident that most of the disease fatalities will be borne by developing nations in the coming years, and will ensure copious profits for cigarette companies for years to come.

While Brandt did acknowledge the very persistent growth of the cigarette companies in the near future, he did not rule out that it was still possible to fight against this. By working together, we can all help bring awareness to the parts of the world where cigarettes are being advertised to uneducated people.



Thabit_Pulak_100Post by Thabit Pulak, Duke 2018


HTC Vive: A New Dimension of Creativity

“I just threw eggs at the robot!” grad student Keaton Armentrout said to Amitha Gade, a fellow biomedical engineering master’s student.


“He just said, ‘Thank you for the egg, human. Give me another one.’ It was really fun.”

In what world does one throw eggs at grateful robots? In the virtual world of the HTC Vive, a 360 degree room-size virtual reality experience created by Steam and HTC that is now offering demos on the Duke campus from November 9 – 13. There is a noticeable buzz about Vive throughout campus.

I stepped in to the atrium of Fitzpatrick CIEMAS expecting a straightforward demonstration of how to pick up objects and look around in virtual reality. Instead, I found myself standing on the bow of a realistic ship, face to face with a full-size blue whale.

A Tiltbrush drawing I created with HTC Vive during my internship at Google. (Tiltbrush was acquired by Google/Alphabet).

A Tiltbrush drawing I created with HTC Vive during my internship at Google. (Tiltbrush was acquired by Google/Alphabet).

Peering over the side of the shipwreck into a deep ravine, I seriously pondered what would happen if I jumped over the railing –even though both my feet were planted firmly on the ground of CIEMAS.

Armentrout observed that the Vive differentiates itself from other VR devices like Oculus by allowing a full range of motion of the head: “I could actually bend down and look at the floorboards of the ship.”

In Valve’s Aperture Science demo, based on their game Portal, I attempted to repair a broken robot so real it was terrifying. I was nearly blown to bits by my robot overseer when I failed at my task. In total, I progressed through four modules, including the shipwreck, robot repair, a cooking lesson, and Tiltbrush, a three-dimensional drawing experience.

Game developers naturally are pursuing in virtual reality, but technologies like HTC Vive have implications far beyond the gaming realm. One of the applications of the Vive, explained one of the Vive representatives, could be virtual surgeries in medical schools. Medical schools could conserve cadavers by assigning medical students to learn operations on virtual bodies instead of human bodies. The virtual bodies would ideally provide the same experience as the operating room itself, revolutionizing the teaching of hands-on surgical skills.

Gade brainstormed further potential applications, such as using robots controlled by virtual reality to navigate search-and-rescue situations after a crisis, reducing danger to rescue crews.

The first time I tried the HTC Vive was not at Duke; it was at a Tiltbrush art show in San Francisco.

HTC Vive Tiltbrush masterpiece displayed at the San Francisco Tiltbrush art show

HTC Vive Tiltbrush masterpiece displayed at the San Francisco Tiltbrush art show

On the stage, an artist was moving her limbs in grand arcs as she painted the leaves of trees and brushing the ground to create a sparkling river. A large screen projected her virtual 3-D masterpiece for the audience.

Gilded frames on stands emphasized the interactive Vive devices, each of which housed a Tiltbrush masterpiece created by a local artist trained in the technique. Well-dressed attendees marvelled at seemingly invisible waterfalls and starry skies in the virtual reality paintings. Clearly, the Vive, by opening another dimension of artistic creation, is changing our notions of space and pushing the bounds of creativity.

12188016_10204922617616904_5669989382191630573_oBy Olivia Zhu Olivia_Zhu_100

The Realities of Dealing with Ebola and Field Research

(EDITOR’S NOTE — The original version of this post rendered Dr. James Russell’s name incorrectly throughout as Dr. Hill. Duke Research Blog apologizes for the error, which has been corrected.)

We’ve all heard about the recent outbreak of Ebola affecting various countries in West Africa. Being in the United States, problems like these often seem “too far away.” And after the initial media craze, Ebola has largely been absent from headlines recently.


Dr. Nathan Thielman (on right), the director of the Global Health Residency/Fellowship pathway program, gives Dr. James Russell a token of appreciation after his talk, on behalf of the Duke Global Health Institute.

However, there is still a large amount of work going on behind the scenes by doctors and scientists in Africa, where there is a massive effort not only to help improve public health facilities, but also a push in research to help with treating Ebola and other diseases affecting the region. The Duke Global Health Institute recently brought in Dr. James Russell from Sierra Leone to tell us about the Ebola crisis affecting West Africa.

Russell has been involved with the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone since its start and has worked on helping patients affected by the virus, and spearheading research efforts in the region to trace sources of Ebola and identify potentially new treatments.

He said the fundamental tool, alongside infrastructure improvement, was improved clinical research. Clinical trials for treatment of Ebola have begun. Russell is also trying to answer certain questions concerning the circumstances of Ebola emergence, such as where another possible outbreak could happen so the response would be quicker and streamlined. “We know it will happen (Ebola)…but when and where?” Russell said. However, doing clinical research in the field is much more different than doing it in a controlled setting like a university laboratory. Russell talked to us about the difficulties of conducting clinical research in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone is a small coastal country located in Western Africa.

Sierra Leone is a small coastal country located in Western Africa.

Such problems include community dependency, which was the tendency for communities to rely on the research institute for their health care needs. The members of a community eventually see the research institute as another donor agency.

Another somewhat indirect problem is that of brain drain: Private research institutes come into communities and offer research assistant jobs to carry out trials which are often higher paying that comparable government-sponsored agencies in Africa. This ultimately takes away workers from those government agencies.

Even something as simple as a consent form turns out to be a problem when conducting field research in an impoverished region, Russell said. Illiteracy is a significant challenge, making it more difficult to get across the message typically contained in very long consent forms.

And finally, dealing with a community also means striking a careful balance between respecting the cultural beliefs of the regions, and executing the goals of the research. Russell said that in certain communities he worked with in Sierra Leone, blood was considered “sacred,” and thus people within those communities were very resistant to the idea of having blood samples taken from them.

As an undergraduate student at Duke, I’ve been exposed to research in the confines of labs within campus. Now I’ve learned from Dr. Russell’s talk that this is nowhere like working in the field, where one can’t control for all the potential factors that can affect results. Fortunately, Duke offers ample opportunity for students to have a chance to get field exposure in addition to their “in-campus” exposure to research problems, through initiatives like the Student Research Training Program, sponsored by the Duke Global Health Institute (who also hosted this talk).

At the time Russell gave this talk (October 29th), Sierra Leone wasn’t considered Ebola-free. Thanks to the efforts of people like Russell, as of November 7th, the World Health Organization declares Sierra Leone as being officially Ebola-free.

Thabit_Pulak_100Post by Thabit Pulak


From Neutrinos to Nuclear Deals: Congressman Bill Foster

Hon. Bill Foster of the 11th District of Illinois is the only member of Congress to hold a Ph.D. in science. On November 5th, Congressman Foster visited Duke’s Initiative for Science and Society to discuss his unconventional path to politics and his consequent unique perspective. He lightheartedly delivered what he called a “recruiting speech” to a room full of scientists, hoping to persuade students with scientific background to become involved in public policy.

Representative Bill Foster, Ph.D., doing what politicians must.

Bill Foster started his first business with his brother at the age of 19 out of his family basement. His earnest, innovative efforts to use computers to control lighting manifested in the company Electronic Theatre Controls, which powered Disneyland and Disneyworld’s Parade of Lights in the 1980s, the 2012 London Olympic Stadium, Chicago’s Millenium Park, and a large portion of shows on Broadway.

Foster then transitioned into his career in physics. He undertook the IMB Proton Decay Experiment for his Ph.D. thesis under Larry Sulak; Foster did not observe proton decay, but he did observe neutrinos from a supernova. Foster continued his physics career at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in suburban Chicago, where he smashed protons and anti-protons together at high speeds and later worked on the particle accelerators themselves.

In the midst of discovering Big Bang particles, Foster also fell into politics by maintaining an active civil engagement. He volunteered for Patrick Murphy’s campaign in 2006, where he says he “learned business on the factory floor,” a philosophy he has maintained since his days at Electronic Theatre Controls. He began the 110th Congress as an intern for Rep. Patrick Murphy, and ended it sitting as a Congressman.

Hon. Foster graphs the relative numbers of scientists and engineers, lawyers, and career politicians in Congress. The U.S. Congress consists mostly of career politicians, explains Foster, while China, for example, consists mostly of engineers.

Rep. Foster plots the relative numbers of scientists and engineers, lawyers, and career politicians in international governing bodies. The U.S. Congress consists mostly of career politicians, explains Foster, while China, for example, consists mostly of engineers.

Since winning his seat in 2012, Foster has introduced a scientific perspective to Congress, even if he’s careful not to conflate that with his political stance. He makes a point to clarify technical details of issues like the Iran nuclear deals, human genetic engineering, and public key cryptography on cell phones, to ensure that Congress makes the most informed decisions possible on highly complicated ethical issues. On genetic engineering, he noted, “Our ethical paradigm is not set up for it,” as the notion of “All men are created equal” fundamentally cannot handle humans whose genetic traits are pre-picked. Clearly, scientific expertise will be invaluable in such consequential issues.

Life in Washington, Foster stated, is unromantic. Foster lives in efficiency apartments and grounds himself by holding “Congress on your Corner” events, where he answers any constituent questions, like why grout isn’t working on a driveway.

Political customs, such as the dilemma of which tie to wear to promote his campaign, still bewilder his scientific mind. Most of the votes he makes, like renaming a post office, or voting on an issue the President will inevitably veto, don’t really matter, he said.

But what makes politics worth it for him, Foster explained as he passed around his voting card, is the power to make a positive difference in issues that impact millions of people. Such ambitions transcend the boundaries between science and policy.

By Olivia Zhu Olivia_Zhu_100

Deep Brain Stimulation as Treatment for Parkinson’s

As if a Nobel Prize weren’t enough, another Duke scientist recently earned a prestigious award for groundbreaking research. Warren Grill was recognized Nov. 2 at the MDB Trent Semans Center for his research and development of deep brain stimulation (DBS) treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

He won the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, which was was created by the U.S. Congress in honor of Senator Jacob Javits, a U.S. politician who succumbed to ALS. The award is worth $4 million, and is used to fund four years of research devoted to curing neurological diseases.


Warren Grill of biomedical engineering was honored with the Javits Award for his work in biomedical neuroscience

Grill is a professor of biomedical engineering, neurobiology, and electrical and computer engineering at Duke whose research has earned him numerous previous awards; including the Scholar/Teacher of the Year award in 2014.

In a talk recognizing his Javits award, Grill stressed the importance of developing non-pharmaceutical treatments for neurological conditions as society faces the increasing prevalence of cognitive diseases in coming decades. “Pills will not save us,” he said.

He also pointed out that pharmaceutical companies seem to avoid developing medicines for mental illness, due to their calculation that the financial cost isn’t worth the low chance of success in curing brain diseases. However, he argues, treatments such as DBS are proving them wrong.

Deep brain stimulation is the placement of a “brain pacemaker” into what is roughly the geographic center of the head, in areas such as the VIM thalamus, globus pallidus, and subthalamic nucleus. For twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, the brain receives constant stimulation by these electrodes, causing symptoms in Parkinson’s such as tremors, rigidity, and difficulty walking to subside or even disappear. While Grill conceded that scientists do not yet understand how and why these electrodes work, he showed video evidence of patients’ improvement after receiving the treatment. For example, a patient who had a debilitating case of Parkinson’s that left him in a wheelchair was soon able to walk, make sandwiches, and even shovel snow after the implantation of the device.

Schematic of a typical deep brain stimulation device. (National Institutes of Health)

Schematic of a typical deep brain stimulation device. (National Institutes of Health)

Grill and his team have worked on improving the efficiency of the DBS device, giving it a longer lifespan and reducing the amount of surgical procedures that patients have to undergo (and the cost of  treatments). Whereas before, the devices would produce high-frequency stimulation to the brain to alleviate symptoms, Grill researched and developed a pattern of DBS with a lower frequency, using computational evolution, that would allow the device to work just as effectively while being up to 75% more efficient. His improvements on the device have allowed them to work up to seven years longer than before, reducing patient surgeries, and thus the risk of infection and misprogramming.

The next steps Grill expects to work on include the development of patient-specific patterns that work more effectively with individual patient’s brains. In addition, he hopes to allow patients to be able to adjust the frequency of their brain stimulation, thus allowing them the choice between efficacy and efficiency of the device throughout their daily lives. Studies are also being conducted into the use of DBS to treat other diseases such as Alzheimer’s, depression, Tourette’s, and epilepsy.

Watch a video of the lecture:

Devin_Nieusma_100Post by Devin Nieusma, Duke 2019

What I wish first-year-me knew about Duke Research

When I arrived at Duke, I thought research was all serious business. It was publications with titles so complicated you couldn’t understand, content meant to make geniuses scratch their heads, and test tubes performing operations nobody quite had time to explain to me.

I thought it was near impossible for an undergrad to get into social science research, and contemplated applying for a lab just to “get research experience.” I signed up for a research mentor, who graciously met me at the steps of Marketplace, but whose spectacular background and accolades intimidated me.

First-year me was confused about Duke Research and directions to the Duke Gardens. Here pictured with my good friend Matthew Lide, Duke 2016.

First-year me was puzzled about Duke Research and directions to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Here pictured with my good friend Matthew Lide, Duke 2016.

Back then, research was a grand, intangible, and formidable concept to me. It was one of those things you were supposed get involved with, and have some sort of not-quite-defined penchant for, but I didn’t know how to go about getting plugged in.

Research was Professor Lefkowitz getting recognized in front of thousands for his Nobel Prize. It was the overwhelming catalog of faculty research interests on each departmental web site. Research was cleaning test tubes, transferring liquids with pipettes, looking through a microscope — none of which I was fundamentally interested in.

Second-year me perfected the art of awkward hand gestures while conversing with Joel Kaplan, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook.

Second-year me perfected the art of awkward hand gestures while conversing with Joel Kaplan, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook, after a Duke American Grand Strategy Program luncheon. Photo Credit: Duke Photography

But I’m here to tell you that I was wrong. You see, over these three years, while I’ve enjoyed engaging in research in formal settings, research has also manifested itself in very personal, very approachable ways, and I’d like to share what Duke Research has come to mean to me.

Research is the enthusiastic dash from one white board to another in the midst of a discussion on model selection so passionate you want to spring off the edge of your seat. It’s the long conversation with your roommate about the state of things that goes into the wee hours of the night.

Research is feeling comfortable to share fresh, under-developed ideas with your mentors. It’s texting your professor that wacky analogy you just made up about a theory you learned. Research is the diversity and breadth of guest lectures, seminars, and symposiums open to all.

Third-year me enjoyed free doughnut breaks as part of research. From left: Kyle Casey, who studies modular forms, TJ Ciesla, who experiments with synthetic biology, and Paul Hoard, who's always down to finance.

Third-year me enjoyed free donut breaks as part of research. Here pictured with Kyle Casey, who studies modular forms, TJ Ciesla, who experiments with synthetic biology, and Paul Hoard, who’s always down to finance.

Research is forwarding your friends an email, an article or event about a concept you think would pique their interest. It’s connecting friends who turn out to be intellectual soul-mates.

Research is pondering over a question someone threw at you during thesis seminar that you don’t quite have the answer for yet. Research is a good game of “Explain (blank*) to a five-year-old,” one of my favorite activities with my best friend. (*So far, we’ve done Excel, the Maximum Likelihood Estimator, and Prime numbers.)

Duke’s research is big, but it can be manifested in so many small, beautiful ways. It advances every time we ask a speaker a question or linger in the Gross Chemistry Hall to give that research poster a second glance. Even though these small steps aren’t formalized, they inadvertently make our research community richer, make us richer.

Fourth-year research is sitting next to your chewbacca-esque friend, trying to sit still while sharing thoughts on his parking optimization thesis. Grant Kelly, Duke 2016.

Fourth-year research is sitting next to your chewbacca-esque friend, trying to sit still while sharing thoughts on his parking optimization thesis. Grant Kelly, Duke 2016.

To quote my boss, it’s not just about the glossy publications or the number of citations; it’s also about the people, the process, the ever-renewing excitement.

TL;DR You don’t have to be published in a top journal to contribute to the richness of the Duke research community–just strike up a conversation with a similarly curious soul!



By YunChu Huang, Duke 2016